Are Indians an ahistorical people?

Are Indians an ahistorical[1] people?

Part I

 

 

 

To me that is an interesting and pertinent question. I have repeatedly encountered it, and often posed more as a statement than a question, both by Indians as well as foreigners.

To really answer this, we need to pose a counter question. What do we mean by history and historical? I doubt if there can be an absolute definition of history, acceptable to all people and cultures. After all, my personal history apart from being of interest to me, can be said to be really relevant only to my immediate family and friends. For the rest of the world, especially to those who do not even know I exist, it is a mass of relatively useless information. So, evidently all information about the past, even if it is true, does not qualify to be called history in a larger sense. And if the person I pass occasionally on the street is unaware of my personal history, does that make him or her ahistorical?

Who decides then, what is history?

In India, shortly after they arrived on our shores, it was essentially the British who decided this. Apparently before these enlightened ones (and other colonial and intellectual powers like the Germans and the French) made us aware of it, we in India had no history, or at least no sense of it. So, we had to be taught history. And since the Indians were too foolish and weak to resist the onslaught of the Europeans, it certainly did not make sense to spend much time in teaching them their own history. That would constitute relatively useless information. Instead they must be guided to devote their energies in gaining information primarily about a little island many miles away in a different part of the world. Who were the kings who ruled there/ what were the plants that grew there?

I was reminded of this as I recently read a collection of short stories written by Munshi Premchand to our eight year old daughter. The first story was called ‘Bade Bhaisahab’ (Elder Brother). The story is about two brothers sent to school away from home. The younger brother spends his time in playing, flying kites, and running around in the fields while the elder spends practically all his waking moments in studying various incomprehensible subjects. Despite repeated admonishments, the younger brother cannot apply himself to diligent study. Strangely enough, he passes his examination with flying colours. And the elder brother? He fails!

What does this mean? “Just luck”, observes the elder brother who is in class 9 for the second time. “Wait till you reach my class”, he warns, “and you have to read, among other things ‘Inglistan ka itihass’. Just remembering the names of the Kings will wear you out. Eight Henrys! Which catastrophe was in which Henry’s rule? How will you – how can you – remember? Write Henry VIII instead of Henry VII, and you will not get a single mark! Dozens of Kings called William and James; probably crores called Charles. You will then see your brain whirling dizzily. Had these unfortunates only asked me, I could have told them 10 million names, but all they seem to know is a handful of names behind which they keep on adding I, II, IV, V!”

Of course, the British must have believed that knowledge of the names and the deeds of the different King Henrys was indispensable to the growth and development of a young Indian boy.[2] So did the poor boy. However much he longed to go and play football and kabaddi under the open sky like his younger heedless brother, he steeled himself not to, in a valiant bid to master the deeds of English kings, long dead and gone, but inevitably a part of history.

So, that was an indispensable part of ‘Indian’ history then. We have been born many years after Munshi Premchand, who lived and died before India achieved independence from the British Raj, and have escaped the real or the recorded tyrannies of the Williams and Henrys. We now read of other kings in our school histories. There is, certainly for Indian tongues, greater variety and ease in their names: Ashoka, Bindusara, Chandragupta, Harshvardhana, Mahendravarman, Iltutmish, Akbar, Sher Shah, Shah Jahan.

Nonetheless, we still remain preoccupied with kings and dynasties.

The Myths of History

So, is history then essentially the knowledge of ‘who’ ruled ‘when’? And therefore, if you and I cannot summon this knowledge at a moment’s notice, does that mean we have no sense of history? Even conventional definitions of history today do seem to be broader than this. Most dictionaries state that history is: ‘A systematic account of the origin and progress of the world, a nation, an institution; the knowledge/study of past events; the past considered as a whole; a course of events.’ Related terms, such as ‘Historicity’ and ‘Historiography’, are defined as ‘historical truth or actuality’, and ‘the art or employment of writing history’ respectively.[3]

This seems to offer a fairly wide field for interpretation, free from political dominance. But, implicit in these definitions seems to be the idea that ‘history’ must be ideally written to qualify as history. Evidently then, such a definition or idea of history arises from cultures where the written word is revered more than the spoken.

But does the mere fact of writing definitely imply that what is written did actually happen? Conversely, does non-written knowledge of past events related to institutions, societies, cultures (which may include highly systematic oral accounts, rituals, visual records or performance-based records) not qualify as ‘history’? The Vedas, the oldest extant texts in India, (also one of the oldest written records in the entire world, as recent research has shown) were for a long time transmitted orally. Did they become part of ‘history’ the moment they were written? For many Indians, and non-Indians too, they represent a highly systematic account of the origin and progress of the ancient world as lived in the Vedic civilization. However, ‘systematic’, of course, is not an absolute term. So, to many other people, they are merely spiritual hymns, myths, allegories, and do not qualify as history.

What value then do myths, rituals and legends have in the context of our past and our present? Again to answer that, one may have to pose another question.

What is a myth?

Some scholars believe that ‘A myth is an extremely complex cultural reality, the foremost function of which is to reveal the exemplary models of all significant human activities in a given society from birth to death. Indeed myths are the most proud and meaningful possession of all early Pre-Industrial Revolution societies. They provide the living entities by supplying models of human behaviour’.[4]

Though one of the definitions of a myth as ‘a traditional story concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social fact’ mirrors this opinion, the other two meanings also included in most dictionaries seem to convey the very opposite: ‘a widely held but false belief; an imaginary person or thing’.[5] The origin of the word is from Greek mythos: story/talk. And the many synonyms of the word: ‘allegory, fable, legend, lore, mythology, symbolism, fallacy, fairy story, false notion, fiction, old wives’ tale, misconception, untruth’, seem to indicate that a myth is generally equated with a falsehood. Again the implication seems to be that the written word is more accurate than the spoken.

But we all know that human observation, recollection and recording – whether pictoral, textual or oral – are all very subjective. E. H. Carr explored this question in his book, What is History, first published in 1961He quotes Professor George Clark from The New Cambridge Modern History, who writes about ‘the doctrine that, since all historical judgements involve persons and points of view, one is as good as another and there is no ‘objective’ historical truth’. Carr himself questions ‘the empirical commonsense view of history’ as ‘a corpus of ascertained facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian’ and finds it ‘a preposterous fallacy, but one which is very hard to eradicate’. His own answer to the question of what constitutes history is, ‘that it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past’[6].

This seems to leave enough freedom of interpretation, and give equal importance to both recorded and lived histories.

Myths certainly do keep alive the dialogue between the past and the present. Devdutt Pattanaik has shared his abiding fascination with myths through his many books and talks. To him, ‘Myth is truth which is subjective, intuitive, cultural and grounded in faith…truth seen from a frame of reference’.[7] This frame of reference not only enshrines codes of conduct and value-systems, but also often offers clues of a more tangible nature – if only we know how to look for them. B.B. Lal, one of the most senior archaeologists of India and a former Director-General of the ASI, has excavated and discovered many important historical sites. In his book Piecing Together, he writes about the discovery of stone-ware associated with the Mahabharata tradition, in sites associated with the Mahabharata story not just through literary data, but also through oral tradition. He cites the example of Saini, located between Meerut and Hastinapur. According to local tradition, when Bhima, the third Pandava, passed through this place, he dusted his shoes. And lo and behold, a mound grew up. As Lal observes: ‘Surely, Bhima’s shoes had not accumulated that much dust so as to create such a high mound as that at Saini.’ But the legend does indicate an association of this site with Bhima, and the Mahabharata story. When Lal explored the already exposed sections of the mound, he found that it revealed the stone-ware that had been discovered at other sites associated with the Mahabharata story.[8]

Despite their enduring value, and what Ashis Nandy describes as ‘the salience given by Indian culture to myth as a structured fantasy which, in its dynamic of the here-and-the-now, represents what in another culture would be called the dynamic of history,’[9] most of us are reluctant to accord any ‘historical’ value to myths and rituals. Perhaps the main reason for this is related to how ‘history’ as something separate – which was no longer a part of life, and therefore which needed to be studied in order to know something about it – arose as a field of study. In the western part of the world, this happened with the onset of what we know as industrialisation; and in the countries of the South and East, such as ours, with the onset of colonization. All traditional societies anywhere in the world, were in touch with their history in a more inclusive sense, till this major break with their past occurred, leading them to ‘study’ history instead of ‘living’ it.

The ways of recording and transmitting history, which are linked to the ‘objective’ of history, naturally underwent a major change. Pre-industrialisation and pre-colonisation, the objective of being in touch with one’s history, may be essentially summarized as firstly, to have ideals to live up to, and to shape character in succeeding generations. Thus, the prevalence of epic poems and stories glorifying the deeds of the brave and the loyal/the true/the faithful, etc. Another important purpose of history was to enable succeeding generations to utilize the bank of knowledge gained in previous generations, whether in the realm of useful inventions, innovations or best agricultural and social practices, etc. The third purpose was to enshrine in public memory events or acts deemed to be important in shaping the identity of a people. Naturally enough then, different groups of people deemed different acts/events/practices to be important, and therefore histories of different groups of people in different areas differed. There was no ‘one History’.

Reformed Histories

With industrialization, the reach and scope of history changed dramatically. People could move quickly both inland and overseas with the invention of the steam engine and the steam ship; differences of regions and locales got effaced; standardization was brought in for greater control of resources; national identities assumed greater significance than regional identities; there was greater volume of contact between people in different regions – and so histories began to be written over a larger canvas. This also meant that people began to move away from traditional occupations and traditional communities, and so lost touch with their immediate histories. When these fast-paced societies did realize the significance of recording their past histories, many of the smaller, local histories had already been lost. In the event, the histories that survived were naturally those of the dominant section of people or the majority.

 

With colonization, the scope of these dominant regional or national histories, increased even more. And the colonized societies were ‘re-formed within the history of the colonizer’. This not only meant that they had to literally ‘learn’ the histories of the colonizer (thus, for many years Indians, as also communicated in Premchand’s stories, had to memorise the succession of British monarchs, Prime Ministers as well as features of the geography and religion of the British Isles) but also had to re-learn their own history from the point of view of the coloniser. The ideals deemed to be worth striving for, were those of the colonising culture, and those of the host society were deemed to be inferior. This was true not just for the areas under British domination. So, for instance, Indians in Pondicherry, where the French established an enclave for purposes of facilitating trade in 1673, studied French history and geography.

History was recognised as a crucial weapon and a tool in demonstrating this difference between the colonisers and the colonised. This is how the British dealt with, as Ashis Nandy puts it:

‘the ideological problem of British colonialism in India which could not easily grapple with the fact that India had a civilization, howsoever strange by European standards…everything said, there were the traditions of four thousand years of civic living, a well developed literati tradition (in spite of all its stress on oral cultures), and alternative traditions of philosophy, art and science which often attracted the best minds of Europe. The fact that India’s past was living (unlike, say, pre-Islamic Egypt) complicated the situation. Some explanation had to be given for her political and cultural ‘degradation’.

The colonial ideology handled the problem in two mutually inconsistent ways. Firstly, it postulated a clear disjunction between India’s past and its present. The civilized India was in the bygone past; now it was dead and ‘museumized’. The present India, the argument went, was only nominally related to its history; it was India only to the extent it was a senile, decrepit version of her once-youthful, creative self.

…Secondly and paradoxically, the colonial culture postulated that India’s later degradation was not due to colonial rule – which, if anything, had improved Indian culture by fighting against its irrational, oppressive, retrogressive elements – but due to aspects of the traditional Indian culture which in spite of some good points carried the seeds of India’s later cultural downfall. Like a sinful man Indian culture was living through a particularly debilitating senility…Thus, in this argument, there was a postulate of continuity but it applied more to sinfulness than to virtues; for an explanation of India’s virtues one had to fall back upon her contacts with the modern world.’[10]

Despite this takeover and ‘makeover’ of Indian history, and the overt equation of all Indian traditions with superstition and degradation, many rural communities or those in the smaller towns, not as affected by association with the British as in the larger urban centres, persisted in ‘living out’ their histories. The past becomes relevant only when there is a real connection between people’s memories and aspects of their past. So, when in 1914, the Pondicherrian soldiers returned after fighting with the French ‘on behalf of the mother country’, ‘France was no longer a mythical country…whose history and geography one studied in books. It somewhat became their own country whose people and landscapes filled their memories.’ [11]

Lived Histories

Almost half a century ago, The Children’s Book Trust, New Delhi, published a book called Life with Grandfather, written and illustrated by Shankar, a renowned children’s author. The stories are meant for young children and are written in a way that they could be situated anywhere in India. But the drawings that accompany them, the clothes that people wear and the landscape they are drawn in, show that they are set in South India. Perhaps this book records the memory of Shankar’s own childhood. In that case, it may be said to record information from about seven decades ago. One of the stories is called ‘A Game of Chance’.

This is how it starts:

‘Every year there was a monsoon festival in one of our big temples. The main event of the festival was a mock battle. The battle was fought between two groups of people, those living on the west side of the temple and those living on the east. Hundreds of men, each armed with a sword and a shield, gathered on opposite sides of a large field. When a special signal was given they marched towards each other and started fighting. Nobody was ever killed or wounded in these mock fights. People were trained to play this mock battle in memory of a real battle fought at that place between two kings hundreds of years ago.

A big fair was also held at the time of the festival. The fair lasted many days. Tradesmen from different parts of the country came there with all kinds of goods to sell. Hundreds of shops were set up and many markets held. People waited for this fair to do their annual shopping. They could buy anything from a small pin to a big elephant.’[12]

The battle was evidently important to a large community who lived around the area, so they enacted it in order to preserve their memory of this battle. Through the fair, they not only transformed this memory into an occasion for celebration, commerce and conviviality, but also transmitted this memory to other communities who came to participate in the festivity associated with the fair. Rather more effective than merely learning about the battle in history books? And perhaps if the history books were written by somebody far away, they would not bother to include a local battle in it. So who is ahistorical? The people who enact the battle? Who celebrate stories through festivals that gave them a connection with their past? Or those who do not believe that such memories and associations are important, and omit to record these in favour of the bigger battles and wars?


[1] Ahistorical: Adjective:
 Lacking historical perspective or context.

[2]  Thomas Babington Macaulay, a British poet, historian and politician, served on the Supreme Council of India between 1834 and 1838. He stated in his ‘Minute on Indian Education’ (1835): “all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England.” http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00generallinks/macaulay/txt_minute_education_18

[3] Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, Compact Oxford Dictionary

[4] N.R. Ray, 1976, p.xi, as quoted in S.R. Rao, The Lost City of Dwarka, p.10, Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi 1999

[5] Compact Oxford Dictionary Thesaurus 2005 Edition

[6] What is History, p. 30, Penguin 2008, first published Macmillan 1961

[7] Devdutt Pattanaik, MYTH=MITHYA, A Handbook of Hindu Mythologies, p. xiii, Penguin, India 2006

[8] B.B. Lal, The Memoirs of an Archaeologist, p. 4, ‘The Yawning Gap and I’, Aryan Books International, New Delhi 2011.

[9] Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, p. 57

[10] Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, pp. 18-9.

[11] Animesh Rai, p. 8, The Legacy of French Rule in India, 1674-1954, IFP Publications, Hors Seris 8

[12] CBT New Delhi 1965, this edition 2006, pp. 38-9

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